JERUSALEM — Israeli officials reacted with fury Monday after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of supporting Nazism and asserted that “Hitler also had Jewish blood.”
In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Lavrov’s “words are untrue and their intentions are wrong.”
“The goal of such lies is to accuse the Jews themselves of the most awful crimes in history, which were perpetrated against them, and thereby absolve Israel’s enemies of responsibility,” he said. “The use of the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately.”
Lavrov made the comments in an interview Sunday on Italian television as he sought to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he was compelled to launch a “special military operation” in February in part because, he claimed, Ukraine is dominated and ruled by neo-Nazis. Pressed on reconciling these “denazification” claims with Zelensky’s Jewish identity, Lavrov waved off its relevance.
“So what if Zelensky is Jewish,” Lavrov said, according to a translation of his remarks, which he made in Russian. “The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood.”
“Some of the worst antisemites are Jews,” Lavrov said.
Outrage at Lavrov’s comments quickly spread across Israel. Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust museum and research center, slammed them as “dangerous” and “a severe blow to the victims of the real Nazism.”
Israeli Deputy Economy and Industry Minister Yair Golan said in a radio interview Monday that Lavrov’s remarks reflect “what the Russian regime truly is — a violent regime that doesn’t hesitate to do away with its rivals from within, to invade a foreign country and to accuse it of reviving Nazism.”
In Ukraine, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that Lavrov’s words “demonstrate that today’s Russia is full of hatred towards other nations.”
Foreign Minister Lavrov’s remarks are both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust. The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.— יאיר לפיד - Yair Lapid🟠 (@yairlapid) May 2, 2022
Lavrov’s comments seemed to harden Israel’s reaction to the Russian invasion, which has been mixed and evolving during the course of the war.
Jerusalem initially denounced the fighting but moderated its direct criticism of Russia out of concerns over its wider security relationship with Moscow. Israel depends on Russian forces to let it carry out unacknowledged airstrikes on Iranian-backed militants inside Syria, according to military analysts here.
Bennett, who had good relations with both Putin and Zelensky, also said he wanted to maintain a degree of neutrality to be able to mediate between them, a role he played in the early weeks of the conflict.
But as the fighting in Ukraine has continued and the civilian death toll mounts, Israel has become increasingly full-throated in denouncing Russia. Lapid in particular has been unstinting in his criticism.
In April, he accused Russia of war crimes after revelations of atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.
“A large and powerful country has invaded a smaller neighbor without any justification. Once again, the ground is soaked with the blood of innocent civilians,” Lapid said during a public appearance in Greece.
Moscow expressed fury later in April after Lapid voted in the United Nations to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Russia said it was an attempt to distract the world from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Russian government did not have an immediate comment on Israel’s request for an apology for Lavrov’s remarks.